Causes of trauma
People are sensitive creatures and are easily disrupted by intense experiences that overwhelm their capacity to cope. These difficult experiences are referred to as ‘trauma’ and are caused through early emotional neglect, or physical or sexual violence or abuse, domestic violence, accidents, war, natural disasters, illness and medical intervention, bullying and other events. Trauma may also occur when people experience ‘vicarious trauma’ through hearing of or witnessing the experience of significant others.
Studies have shown that traumatic stress is caused by some threat to our physical, emotional or psychological safety. Trauma is a very complex area and affects individuals in different ways so there is not one unified theory of how it works. However, we do know that trauma has a profound impact on health and well-being, especially childhood trauma. Childhood trauma has a cumulative effect and is associated with a much higher risk of developing serious substance abuse or dependence, depression and suicidality in adulthood, as well as obesity and other physical illnesses.
Symptoms of trauma
Trauma is anchored in the body’s evolutionary alarm system which, when activated by an extreme experience, prompts us to fight or to flee. An experience becomes traumatic when this natural response is blocked and we cannot move away from the threat. The end result may be that we never feel relaxed or at ease, but rather that our body and brain are constantly on guard scanning the environment for further threat and replaying the past trauma as if it is still happening. This part of the brain, by staying on alert, may cause sleep problems, or nightmares and flashbacks. The trauma sufferer may develop chronic health issues and certainly suffers from anxiety related to the loss of sense of safety, order or predictability.
The victim of trauma thus lives in an uncomfortable state of physical hyper-arousal and uncomfortable body sensations as well as a myriad of emotions, which range from obsessive anger to anxious worry. These effects on the body and the mind result in an alienation from self and others, a reduced capacity to be present in the moment and a profound disconnection from the body. These symptoms often may become unbearable – although the trauma is in the past, the body reacts as if the trauma is still happening in the present. Victims of trauma describe being trapped in feelings of terror, rage and helplessness. A natural response then is to use drugs and alcohol to manage these intense sensations and feelings. Some trauma sufferers learn to self-harm in an attempt to cope. Others indulge in risky or self-harming behaviours in order to gain a sense of control.
Thoughts related to the trauma reinforce the traumatic patterns in the body thus keeping the individual trapped in a need to attack or a need to defend. There is a preoccupation on themes of betrayal, dread and suffering. For children, schemas of abandonment and assault are formed. The result of trauma is that the ability to enjoy life and its pleasures as well as the ability to tolerate pain all become impaired.
Treatment and recovery
Recovering from trauma involves the ability to tolerate bodily sensations and horrible memories without becoming overwhelmed. It is a gradual process that needs painstaking attunement to the client’s bodily and mental processes in order to begin the journey towards expressing in words what happened, to gradually work through the process of accepting that the experience happened in the past and is no longer happening in the present, and to move the client in a direction of compassionate self-acceptance.
Recent research has indicated that talking therapy is not enough when dealing with trauma. The body needs to be attended to as well and for this part of the healing journey experts on trauma recommend mindfulness-based practices which may include meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.
Trauma recovery also often involves reprocessing or integrating the painful traumatic memories so that they don’t interfere with a person’s life in the present. There are many such approaches available including Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and Schema therapy which have scientific research evidence to support their efficacy.
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